The Reeler


May 24, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Disney franchise's third installment a cynically incoherent spectacle

Any notion of heed being paid to the critical backhand leveled at the second Pirates installment's logistical free-for-all is dispatched in the opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. A wee’un, singing a pirate dirge as he stands on the gallows, tips his face back to reveal a mouth full of braces; details are -- rather defiantly -- not going to be the strong suit here either. Just what that strong suit would be is beyond me, and director Gore Verbinski is blissfully aware of the fact that it matters not a bit; Dead Man’s Chest broke box office records, and this film, shot at the same time as its predecessor, bears the same hallmarks of being hacked, horned and hemmed together as they went along.

Perhaps it is hopelessly old-fashioned, in a post-franchise, blockbuster wasteland, to look for either characters or themes to be developed across a popcorn trilogy, but there is occasional evidence that it can still be done. Even Spider-Man 3 features characters we have come to care about, and a credible attempt at some visual and thematic psychology. In the sense that it gives only the most disingenuous nods to continuity, both within itself and within the trilogy, At World’s End is a vastly, almost sublimely cynical spectacle. Even in the canon of studio concoctions whose entire raison d’être is widely accepted as a box-office bonfire, someone, somewhere along the way, at least makes an attempt to conjure stars -- rather than dollar signs -- in the eyes of both the actors and the audience.

I’m not sure I could telegraph the plot of this film, even if it did make a difference, which it doesn’t. As per the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) needs to be rescued from eternal purgatory, a k a Davy Jones’ locker, and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) have ended up in a Singapore bathhouse, hoping to steal the nautical charts of Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), which will lead them to Sparrow at the end of the world. Also, the East India Trading Company continue to be assholes, and I continue to not be sure why, excepting the vague idea that they want to control “the sea,” whatever that means. Although a general lust for Miss Swann is offered up at one point as well.

At World’s End operates in concerted spurts, with a clumsy set up leading to an action sequence (one typical aside/plot explication/segue ends with the too-hopeful “I knew there was a good reason!”), then another clumsy set up leading to another completely unrelated action sequence. “Do you think he plans it all out, or just makes it up as he goes along?” a bystander asks after Sparrow performs a patented, dangerously-close-to-tedious bit of rakish business, and there is just no way that line is not an inside joke; I kept waiting for the speaker to turn to the camera and do his best Jim Halpert impression.

After initially uniting against a common enemy (Davy Jones, East India Trading Co.), the Thais and the Black Pearl crew begin a series of double-crosses as numerous as the clang-cling-clangs of their swords. The black-toothed Creole soothsayer is back (she’s actually a body-bound goddess of the sea named Calypso); turns out—get this—she’s also the love of Davy Jones’ life, and should he help free her of her bony cage she promises to exact her womanly wrath on the UN of pirates, who have gathered at Shipwreck Cove to, uh, find an excuse for the Keith Richards cameo. The entire plot of Dead Man’s Chest is dispatched in a brief scene when Jones decides he doesn’t want his heart back after all, and the refrains hurled throughout the film like thematic life preservers (“The Dutchmen must always have a captain” and “What is it you want most in the world?”) amount to little more than that.

It is rather marvelous, amid all of the desperate clashes and (masterfully) computer generated bedlam being roiled along by the bullying score, to note the ferocious performances of Rush, Depp (who does enchant, for the most part) Bill Nighy and Stellan Skarsgard. The latter two in particular, as with the previous film, somehow manage to inject the most stinging emotion into the two characters who are almost completely obliterated by prosthetics and computer effects. We had voices then, I found myself thinking, but then by the third hour my thoughts had definitely turned to self-pity.

The effects are gutting, but too often the chance to marvel is cut short by Verbinski’s driving impulse to ... cut short. Battle fatigue ensues, and the wet noodle chemistry and matching complexions of Bloom and Knightley -- who are wed during a scene in which marriage is nicely proffered as essentially a pact to double up against the bad guys -- certainly can’t reverse it.

I hope it isn’t true that we get the blockbusters we deserve, despite all evidence, as they say, to the contrary. There is a fair amount of gore (though more yucky than bloody) in At World’s End, but I found the most gruesome scene to be that of a hallucinatory ship full of Jack Sparrows, tipping and toeing around in an orgy of focus-group frippery that encapsulates everything that is wrong with this hapless, haggard movie. Oh, so you like Jack Sparrow, dipshits? Here -- have 37 -- and try not to choke on them. “I wash my hands of this weirdness,” Depp says, in abandoning his doppelgangers. Yeah, dude, me too.

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